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The UK men’s basketball team cut a 17-point halftime deficit to two points but couldn’t complete the comeback in an 80-77 loss to arch rival Louisville. While the Wildcats could pull no closer during the final five and one-half minutes, their coach is not blaming the loss on his players’ late-game execution.
“I told my team all week, ‘You get us close, I’ll help us get over the edge. You just make this close,’” said UK head coach John Calipari. “They did, and down four with the ball, I didn’t call that timeout.
“Believe me, I was standing there thinking, ‘Timeout,’ and I didn’t call out. That effectively ended the game, so I told them, ‘This is on me.’
While Calipari may have honestly thought his decision was the reason UK could not finish the comeback, he was also able to shift some of the focus away from his team’s performance down the stretch.
A jumper from sophomore guard Ryan Harrow with 5:32 left pulled UK with two at 63-61, but the Wildcats could pull no closer.
The Wildcats struggled from the foul line for the entire game, making just 10 of 23 free throws, but those struggles were amplified as the clock winded down. UK made just two of seven free throws into final five minutes with freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein missing all four of his attempts in that stretch.
Cauley-Stein was even given two extra chances at free throws due to Louisville lane violations, but he could not convert them.
“We said, ‘Look, if we have to put Cauley-Stein to the line, put him on the line,’” said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. “We wanted it. Twice we went in too early, but we still go the rebound.”
UK cut the lead to five with a three from senior guard Julius Mays with 1:42 left in the game, but freshman guard Archie Goodwin missed two jumpers, including a blocked three-point attempt, and Louisville forward Chane Behanan converted a turnover from UK freshman forward Nerlens Noel into a break-away dunk to give the Cardinals a seven point lead with 44 seconds remaining.
With 33 seconds reamining, UK go the ball back, down four, setting up the play in which Calipari though he should have called a timeout.
Instead, Goodwin threw the ball away, and Behanan recorded another dunk to put the game out of reach.
“I don’t think it was on him because we missed 12 free throws and we had careless turnovers,” Cauley-Stein said. “If we make half those free throws, it’s a whole (different) ball game. If we have half the turnovers we had, it’s really a whole (different) ball game.”
“I’m not going to blame Coach Cal because he’s not the one out there playing,” Harrow said. “We’re the ones that’s out there playing. We’re the ones that didn’t make the shots, or we’re the ones that didn’t make the defensive stop and let some guys get open shots. It’s not on Coach Cal. It’s on us.”
The failed comeback overshadowed what was otherwise an encouraging performance from the unranked Wildcats versus the No. 4 Cardinals.
Goodwin was able to take advantage of late foul trouble for Louisville’s guards to finish with a game-high 22 points. Harrow scored 17 points to go with five rebounds and three assists. Against the vaunted Louisville defense, he escaped the game with no turnovers.
Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer scored 14 points, including consecutive three-point baskets that started the run to cut the lead from 17 to two. Freshman forward Wille Cauley-Stein recorded his first career start and played most of the second half, finishing with six points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
“We did get better,” Calipari said after the loss. “I mean, everybody sees it. Ryan is better. Archie is still turning it over and was a little bit out of control but still made plays we needed him to make‚Ä¶Willie, I thought, was good. He didn’t make free throws, but it’s all new to him. I thought he did a terrific job.”
UK’s second-half comeback was enough to impress Pitino.
“Two weeks ago, quite frankly, I didn’t think they were a very good basketball team,” he said. “Now, they’re a hell of a basketball team. So, they have really in just a two week span really improved.”
Despite the improvements, Calipari and players pointed to several areas where the team still obviously needs work.
Mays extended his streak of missed three-point attempts to 13 before hitting a late shot. Freshman forward Alex Poythress spent most of the second half on the bench after Calipari took issue with his level of effort.
“We’ve got to get Alex playing better,” Calipari said. “He’s just not. He’s going to have to earn minutes.”
As for what the Wildcats can take from a close loss to a top-five team and an impressive second-half comeback, at least one player is not putting much stock in moral victories.
“Every game is a big game for us, really, because we need to make a statement,” Harrow said. “We’re supposed to be the team making history and doing things, and it’s kind of the other way around. We need to step up as a team and try to finish this season out strong because it’s not like a Kentucky team to keep on losing.”